seascape models

Working within your lab group to create a more equitable and diverse scientific workforce

It is well recognized that science has an equity and diversity issue, including under-representation of women in the scientific workforce and lack of cultural diversity. But the issue often seems to systemic that we might wonder what we can usefully do as individuals.

Our combined seascape models and Global Wetlands Project teams decided we could do more. We recently convened a discussion on the topic of equity and diversity. I wanted to share that experience here, in the hope that it is helpful for other groups interested in doing more.

My colleague and I, Viv Tulloch, organized the 1 hour workshop. We decided the aims of the workshop were threefold:

  1. Help others be more aware of the equity issue.

  2. Help staff and students find useful actions they could take as individuals to address equity issues.

  3. Challenge everyone to understand these issues from other people’s perspectives (this was the most important to me. Everyone brings a different perspective to issues on equity and I believe that we will make the fastest progress if we try to understand each other’s perspectives).

The statistics

There are many statistics and studies on equity, especially gender equity, in the scientific workforce. So many in fact that it is overwhelming and you could spend a whole day just going over those.

I looked up some statistics most relevant to our university and Australian research culture.

Griffith Uni recently convened a university level panel on equity and diversity, which submitted a report to the Athena Swan program. The program is a kind of certification for universities to say they are doing something, you can read more about our efforts here.

The report is full of statistics about equity and diversity at Griffith. These are typical of many universities in Australia. So I highlighted a few.

First, at academic levels A and B (i.e. lecturer/postdoc levels), there are more women than men. At academic level C (senior lecturer/senior researcher), there are only just more men than women. By academic level E (full professor) there are about 2x as many men as women.

This is the classic pipeline issue, where women ‘drop-out’ of the later stages due to complex interaction between life choices (e.g. having children), sexism, preferential selection of male candidates and lack of female role models.

Griffith has been working towards addressing this issue for over 5 years now, thanks mostly (I think) to leadership from some very senior female staff (for instance by creating women’s promotion workshops). As a result the rate of successful promotion applications has gone from being much higher for men in 2014 to just about equal when comparing men to women.

The rate of female staff applying for promotion has also been going up over time and is also just about equal now.

Our most esteemed research funder, the Australian Research Council, also has an issue. For instance, there is a so called daversity issue where over a period of years 51 men called David have lead ARC grants, but only 6 Suzannes (the most common female name).

The impact

Following up from the introductory stats, we discussed the impact of this gender (and cultural) bias on our workplace. Viv Tulloch asked the team if they would like to share a positive or negative story about gender.

I don’t want to share other people’s stories here, but a few general trends emerged.

There were many positives. Some people noted more collaborative working in diverse teams. Others noted that diverse teams could be more sympathetic to difficult circumstances, so may improve staff mental health. Others just told stories about how they had felt supported in the past.

A big positive for me personally (obviously I’m a man) is that having a more diverse workforce makes work more supportive and enjoyable. For instance, I recognized that I was able to take paid primary carer’s leave to care for my baby this year when my wife went back to work. That I could get paid leave was only because of the many mothers before me who fought to have paid primary carer’s leave in Australian universities.

I’ve also seen through my work on Griffith’s Athena Swan panel that the focus on solving the ‘pipeline’ issue end up benefitting everyone. It motivated the University to look more closely at career development issues for early career researchers, regardless of gender or background. As a consequence they have a greater focus now on career development and new programs, like early career grants, that are open to every researcher.

On the negative side I was shocked to hear quite a number of stories from people’s past careers of bias in interview panels. This included being encouraged by senior staff not to hire young women in case they had children, and interview panels considering women unfit for dirty field work.

Such questions and considerations about personal circumstances, or bias on the basis of race or gender, are obviously illegal, but it seems that they remain an issue for many women.

What can I do?

Next we split the group into four break-out groups to discuss particular equity case-studies. The aim was to find solutions for individuals, but I also encouraged the groups to seek to understand other people’s perspectives on each issue.

Our groups were:

  1. You overhear a senior male prof make an inappropriate sexual remark to a young female student. What do you do? (see here for a real example of this chronic problem)

  2. You notice an international student is uncomfortable with the casual Australian work ethic, Australian slang and the culture of after work drinks (they don’t drink). What do you do?

  3. You are comparing two grants/job applications. Both are 3 years out of their PhD, one has more high impact papers, but the second had a significant break for maternity leave. How do you compare them fairly and what types of other information might you want for a fair comparison?

  4. You congratulate a colleague on their winning a new grant and ask them how they feel about it. They looked stressed and admit they are worried that the new award will take time away from their family. What do you do?

We ran a session with break out groups to ensure that everyone had a chance to share their perspectives (we had about 20 people in the combined room), but also so we could explore some issues in more detail.

We asked each break-out group to take notes and report back to the whole group after about 20 minutes.

I won’t share their thoughts here, I’ll just encourage you to try this yourself. The workshop ended up going for about 1 hour 20 minutes and I wish we had more time (but we were squeezed between other events). Anyway, we plan to do a follow-up later this year.

For me, I know I left with a new understanding of how my staff and students felt about equity issues, but also some new ideas about what I could do as an individual.



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